Swimming in Oil

Imagine waking up every day to a view of the Indian Ocean, the beautiful translucent waves creeping gently to shore as if to protect the diverse and unique ecosystems beneath. As a Mauritian, the water is your livelihood: it is a place of work, for fishermen and activities; a place for food, to feed the country’s 1.29 million residents; and a place to explore and discover, as a biodiversity hotspot. Further to this, the alluring sea attracts over 4,600 high net worth individuals to Mauritius, as a place to relax and do business, which has made it the fastest-growing wealth market in Africa. Alongside these wealthy individuals, everyday tourism occurs which, between 2007 and 2017, made the total wealth held by Mauritius rise by 195%, in US terms. These reasons combined, make the country rely on the sea for the security of the economy.

However, on the 25th of July, this dependency was destroyed after a Japanese-owned ship ran aground offshore of Pointe d’Esny, in the south of Mauritius. About a week later, it began spilling oil near the biodiversity hotspot which left Mauritius devastated about the future of the coastal region. To make matters worse, the wind and water currents began to drift the oil towards the area that has vital marine ecosystems. The region is home to 1700 species including 800 types of fish, 17 kinds of marine mammals, and 2 species of turtle, according to the UN Convention of Biological Diversity. All of which will be affected due to the vast amount of oil in the region, if not directly, then indirectly through the food chain or the habitat. Around 25% of fish in the ocean depend on healthy coral reefs according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of the US. However, the toxic hydrocarbons released from spilled oil will bleach the coral reefs and they will eventually die. This will have an impact across the food chain. Not only this but Mauritius, as an island, are already at risk due to climate change. By wetlands and coral reefs dying, the island is more at risk due to rising sea levels.

The carrier was believed to be carrying around 4,000 tonnes of fuel, whereby 1,200 tonnes of fuel is believed to have spilled into the lagoon. The type of fuel that the carrier was transporting was a new low-sulfur oil which is being introduced to reduce air pollution. This type of oil has never been spilled before so there have been no long-term studies on the impacts of the fuel on marine life. After news about the oil spread, the local and international community rushed to help the island control the matter. The island called on the international community in order to help them with the spill due to not having the facilities and knowledge to deal with the clear up of an oil spill. The first response was from the local French island, Reunion. They were able to erect ocean booms in order to contain the oil spill. In addition to this, the United Nations sent a team that involved experts in oil spills and crisis management. By working with the government, the UN has been able to coordinate clean-up efforts to quickly return the island back to reality. In as little as one weekend, 80km of make-shift oil booms were created out of cane trash- the leftover leaves and waste from sugar-cane processing- to contain the oil. This, in combination with empty bottles, aided them to float whilst anchors stopped them from drifting away.

But what caused the ship to run aground? There are currently three main theories as to why the ship ran aground. The first theory is poor weather theory. This theory was suggested by Panama’s Maritime Authorities (where the Japanese-owned vessel was registered). They state that poor weather conditions caused the ship to go off route, which led to it running aground. However, when looking at satellite images around the time, no other ship or vessel was impacted or changed trajectory due to adverse weather at the time. In observing this, the theory of poor weather leading to the spill is not satisfactory. The second theory is to do with internet signals and suggests that the ship changed course slightly in order to get a stronger internet signal. Due to the current context of the coronavirus, crew members would have wanted to get in contact with their families to make sure that they are okay. However, this theory is also weak as in 2019, Mitsui OSK Lines confirmed that all vessels that operated in its fleet had access to free and unlimited internet. This would have meant that they would not have needed to change course for ‘stronger signals’. The final theory is the alcohol theory. It is said that there could have been a possible party onboard the ship when it ran aground. However, this theory is bad for the reputation of Mitsui OSK Lines whose CEO committed to a strict alcohol management program being enforced across all vessels. This was in response to a serious crash at a US Naval Base on the island of Guam in December 2018, by a Mitsui OSK Lines cruise ship. The transport company aimed to tackle alcohol abuse through rigorous training, mental health support, crew monitoring, and having breathalyzers on board.

All three theories as to why the ship ran aground have weakened considerably after further research has been conducted. Whilst a public investigation continues to go on about what happened on the ship, the international community continues to support the island and islanders as they attempt to clear up after the disaster. Reports suggest that the Japanese and Mauritian governments have entered into talks for the Japanese government to pay 3.6 billion Yen (equivalent to 34 million USD) to the Mauritian government in order to support local fisherfolk who have been impacted. Although money will not reverse the clock, it is of considerable aid to a community with an unknown future.

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